Online tools help Canadians remember veterans’ great sacrifice

With mortar shells exploding overhead, Captain Thain W. MacDowell charged into a German machine-gun nest at the crack of dawn on the morning of April 9, 1917, participating in one of the first advances in the historic assault on Vimy Ridge.

The northern France hillside was a strategic vantage point that French and British troops had tried but failed to take – and instead suffered 150,000 casualties.

Canada took the ridge in a matter of days, using a well thought out method of artillery barrage followed by waves of soldiers emerging from the trenches.  

It went down in the books as a defining moment in Canada’s history.  

The machine gun MacDowell captured 91 years ago is held in Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum collection.

The machine gun captured by Capt. MacDowell at Vimy Ridge.

You can view it online – and with a Flash-based application dubbed Zoomify, you can zoom in and see the imperfections in the gun’s barrel, or the bent disc near its firing point.

It’s one of many ways the Web is bringing Canadian war history home this Remembrance Day, and this particular tool is a favourite of Kathryn Lyons, senior interpretive planner at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

“Being able to see the actual pencil strokes of a letter, or being able to see what the soldiers engraved on their bayonet is a level of access you don’t normally get even in a museum, where objects are behind glass cases,” Lyons says.

The museum is hosting its Remembrance Day toolkit on the Web for the third year in a row. It is also showcasing a new special section documenting Canadian involvement in World War One.

Meanwhile Veterans Affairs Canada has special initiatives to keep the memory of our veterans’ accomplishments and sacrifices alive for all Canadians.

The federal department’s Web site – which is promoting Veterans’ Week 2008 from Nov. 5 to 11 – includes a section on the First World War.

Overall, Canadians have a vast amount of information in the form of text, video, audio and interactive features to delve into to help remember the sacrifice made by those in wars past and present.

The online tools help Canadians reflect on the special meaning of this Remembrance Day that also marks the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I.

Canadians begin an artillery assualt on Vimy Ridge in the dark of night.

“This is a huge anniversary, it marks the actual First World War armistice,” says Janice Summerby, a spokesperson with Veterans Affairs Canada. “These online tools are what the younger generation use to share such information.”

Not only do the Web sites seek to connect directly with youth – Veterans Affairs is currently running a project involving 13 youth bloggers who are travelling abroad with Canadian war veterans – but the goal is to enable teachers too.

Educators are being encouraged to bring the material to their students through classroom projects or extra-curricular activities. The museum’s toolkit was built with teachers’ needs in mind.

Some teachers land at a school, and in their first year get saddled with “the responsibility of planning the entire Remembrance Day assembly,” Lyons says. “This site [serves as] a one-stop-shop for everything you would need to organize that assembly.”

One suggested activity for teachers is to assign students the task of creating and interpreting their own war exhibit.

The exercise could involve interviewing local veterans, or sharing personal family stories. In the end, the students could display their exhibits to classmates or even hold an open house during an evening.

The museum’s own Web site supplies many resources that could be used to create such an exhibit.

There are more than 7,000 black and white photos of the war available on the site. There are also scanned letters, journals, and telegrams written by soldiers. Collections also include audio clips.

One such clip is an interview with Robin Hayward, a Canadian prisoner of war during World War II.

“They tried to intimidate us. After interrogation they’d say: well, if you don’t cooperate, you could be shot at dawn,” Hayward says in the clip. “Then they would leave you in solitary confinement and you’d hear a gun go off. I guess that was to frighten you.”

The Veterans Affairs Web site also brings a wealth of resources directly to Canadians.

The Web is now a major channel used by the organization to communicate with Canadians and keep the memories of those who died in service to Canada’s military alive.

The Virtual War Memorial is a key initiative to document the accomplishments of all 116,000 Canadians who lost their lives in military or peacekeeping related service.

“It remembers the sacrifice of each individual Canadian and personalizes it,” Summerby says. “It gives that little bit of background about who they were.”

The project aims to list soldiers’ names, date of death and age, as well as details about their military careers and the campaigns they were involved with and burial information.

Users can search a database of 116,000 Canadians who died while in service.

Soldiers’ names are searchable and family members or researchers are invited to add to the collection of material by uploading photos. The project hosts more than 63,000 photos to date.

“With physical memorials, you have to go there to remember the fallen,” Summerby says. “With this, they are brought to you and in an instant you can connect with someone who served and sacrificed.”

The “Heroes Remember” section on the organization’s Web site was inspired by a collection of video-taped interviews with 300 war veterans.

The videos had previously been archived for historical preservation, and the odd snippet was sent out to cable channels for airing. But putting them on the Internet allows anyone access to an organized collection of the interviews in 2,500 separate video clips.

“It’s the next best thing to being in a room with someone who is talking to you and sharing their experiences,” Summerby says. “Now they’re all available to you in your living room.”

Both the Veterans Affairs and museum’s Web sites are ongoing projects.

Just as curators continually update and rework collections to bring new perspective and insight to history, the Web sites always remain a work in progress. For the museum, the online repository is the ultimate way to bring the entire collection directly to the public and remove boundaries to accessing history.

“In the museum, we can display only a small percentage of all of the collection,” Lyons says. But through the Web site the museum can showcase a much wider range of its collection.

At Veterans Affairs, the multimedia potential of the Web is tapped in one of the newer features – a 3D tour of Vimy Memorial.

The first Canadian national historic site to be named outside of Canada, the monument was built by the French and dedicated to the Canadians who sacrificed their lives to reclaim the ridge.

“It’s really monumental and really hits you with its enormity,” Summerby says. “The grounds are still pock marked from all the shells that exploded there.”

Those very shells paved the way for Capt. MacDowell to claim that German machine gun nest, and eventually for the Canadians to claim the entire ridge.

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